Sala Thai lets diners down

For some odd reason, there seem to be a lot of Thai restaurants in Washington, D.C. Although Thai cuisine has never received the notoriety achieved by Ethiopian or Vietnamese, its popularity has spread like wildfire.

I had high expectations for one Thai restaurant, Sala Thai, because it has survived many years of competition in its location. My hope was that this survival was the result of years of quality service

Walking down into Sala Thai’s sub-street level location on P Street, you get the sensation of being underwater – the walls are purple and blue tones and there are plenty of flowers around in the dimly-lit restaurant. While this decor is a nice change from the garish atmosphere frequently found in Thai restaurants, the way the restaurant packs the tables in allows for little conversation without yelling.

Satay – the traditional Thai appetizer made out of chicken or pork marinated in spices and served with a peanut dipping sauce – was clearly the winner of the night. The chicken that we ate was fragrant with turmeric and lemongrass, although no single spice stood out. The dish was served grilled to allow just the right amount of smoky flavor to take its hold on the chicken. The accompanying peanut sauce was creamy with just enough spice to balance it out.

The entrees never met the expectations the Satay had set. The best of the entrees was the Pad Thai, a noodle dish with shrimp, egg, scallions, peanuts and a variety of flavorings. While the shrimp were tender and the noodles were cooked to a chewy perfection, the traditional hint of lime that adorns this dish was absent, leaving it with a bit of the cloying sweetness that marks a dish that has been Americanized. The dish is rather tasty, if not authentic.

Chicken with peanut sauce (Panang Gai) has many of the same things that made the Pad Thai right – the chicken was tender enough to melt in your mouth, and the presentation of the dish was beautiful. If only the peanut sauce had been the same as the one served with the Satay, the dish would have been excellent. Unfortunately the strong presence of coconut milk overwhelmed the peanuts and all the other ingredients that go into a peanut sauce – leaving it also tasting a bit Americanized.

Ka Prow, which is usually a more authentic Thai dish was perhaps the most disappointing of the evening. Although the chicken was cooked tenderly, something this restaurant did fairly consistently, the flavoring was completely off. Ka Prow generally is used to showcase the fragrant and tasty Thai basil leaf but Sala Thai’s version used so much hot pepper that the spiciness absolutely overwhelmed the basil, rather than complementing it. Likewise, the one sliver of red pepper that was put in the dish was a welcome respite from the mounds of spicy green peppers that detracted from the taste of the chicken.

Deserts were surprisingly well made at Sala Thai. The fried banana was sort of a desert egg roll that delicately mingled bananas with another fruit and deep fried them in a wrapper coated with a sugary syrup. It matched nearly perfectly the sometimes saccharine taste of banana with an unidentifiable milder fruit. Taro pie is nice and homey, a sort of Thai take on a sweet potato pie.

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